Maury County Public Schools Superintendent Michael Hickman said the school district is strained and concerned as the coronavirus continues to spread exponentially through Southern Middle Tennessee.
“We were anticipating high numbers this year with the Delta variant,” Hickman told The Daily Herald.
“However, we did not think that we would see them this soon. Our COVID Response Team has been meeting multiple times each week. During this meeting, we are tracking numbers and making sure that we adhere to all Tennessee Department of Health requirements. We will continue to meet as the need may necessitate.”
The most recent count of active cases of the virus published by MCPS showed that a total of 292 students and 49 staff members have tested positive for the virus.
The week prior, a total of 231 students tested positive for the virus, along with 40 educators and staff.
Three weeks earlier, when the first week of classes came to and end, the district reported 52 students and six staff members were actively infected with the virus.
Columbia Central High School remained closed on Thursday and Friday due to a shortage of available staff, leaving the school's 1,515 students at home for the day.
School leaders did not directly blame the virus for the closure.
“There are many things going into why we don’t have school," said Jack Cobb, director of communications for Maury County Public Schools.
The school district communicated that Thursday and Friday's missed classes will be the first of eight available stockpile days traditionally utilized for inclement weather.
"There are a few teachers that have COVID," Cobb said. "There are people who are on sick leave and vacations. We also don’t have all our jobs jobs filled. They don’t have enough staff."
MCPS cares for more than 13,000 students enrolled in district. They are taught by about 900 teachers and 500 staff members.
Maury County nears previous peak in new cases
The Tennessee Department of Health currently reports a total of 937 active case of the virus in Maury County.
On Monday Aug. 21, the county experienced its largest increase in reported cases in four months with 165 new cases of the virus reported.
State records show that the last single-day increase of a similar scale occurred on Friday, April 16 with 186 new cases reported that day.
The average number of new cases is nearing the rate during the pandemic’s previous peak in Maury County last December when an average of 148 new cases were reported each day.
On Dec. 15, 247 new cases were reported in Maury County, a high for the county.
During the past 14 days, Maury County has had an average of 72.4 new cases of the virus each day, according to Tennessee Department of Health data. During the prior two week period, the county experienced an average of 39.5 new cases of the virus each day.
A total of 187 people have died from the virus in the county since it was first identified in Tennessee in March of 2020.
A strain on school resources
Hickman said the spread of the illness is straining the school district’s resources, especially the total number of educators that are willing and able to lead classes.
“We have already had a strain on some schools due to the inability to fill teacher vacancies,” Hickman said.
“With these vacancies, day-to-day sicknesses, and COVID, we will monitor each school for its ability to operate. If we feel that a school cannot staff its school adequately, we will consider having to close that school. However, due to the State Board of Education's remote option policy being repealed and its new policy for virtual learning, if a school closes due to COVID, it will count towards their stockpile days. Our district currently has eight non-used stockpile days.”
Due to the pandemic, the Tennessee Department of Education has given districts greater flexibility to hire classroom teachers. It has lessened credential requirements offering approval of permits and waivers for the current school year.
If an individual has a bachelor's degree and would like to be a classroom teacher, the district can apply for a special permit for the prospective educator. The program is available for all positions except for special education courses.
“We are concerned about the increasing numbers of COVID cases that we see locally and throughout the state,” Hickman said. “We feel that the number we are seeing is in line with most all districts in our state. We will continue to monitor each school for the number of positive cases for employees and students.”
MCPS is no longer offering families a remote learning option in accordance to a declaration from Gov. Bill Lee, calling for a complete return to in-person learning in the state’s public schools.
During the 2020-21 school year MCPS school nurses documented that 10% of the student population of roughly 10,000 in-person students tested positive for COVID-19. The district reported that 78% of students attending in-person classes quarantined due to contact tracing at least once.
Teachers and staff affected by COVID-19, either through infection or quarantine, included about 63% of the school district's 1,400 school employees last school year.
MCPS follows guidelines set by the set by the Tennessee Department of Health.
To better handle the changing conditions caused by the pressures of COVID-19, the district maintains a Covid Response Team.
The team consists of Hickman, Assistant Superintendents Eric Perryman and Scott Gaines, Chief Human Resources Officer Jennifer Garrard, Director of Athletics & Supervisor of Nursing Chris Poynter, Director of Pupil Services Jeff Richey, Coordinated Health Supervisor Laurie Stanton, Lead School Nurse Diane Alley, Supervisor of Special Education Lisa Ventura and Communications Director Jack Cobb.
The team meets regularly and as needed to help with concerns and questions from the school district's schools, teachers and staff amid the ongoing pandemic.
Terminology clarified by school district
Out of an abundance of caution and in response to questions and concerns from members in the community, MCPS released a new glossary of terms to clarify its protocols to mitigate the spread of the virusas defined by the TDH.
Isolation refers to when when a person tests positive and should stay away from other people. Only a medical professional can ask you to isolate.
Quarantine is used when someone should stay home if you have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Only a medical professional can ask you to quarantine.
Close Contact refers to when a person is within 6 feet or less of a positive case of COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more.
Contact Tracing is related to case investigations and is a process to identify, monitor, and support individuals who may have been exposed to a person with a communicable disease, such as COVID-19. When cases are identified, schools are expected to supply a list of identified close contacts, seating charts and rosters to the extent those documents are maintained and parental contact information to health departments.
Effective Sept. 7, students who are out of school due to the virus and supported with medical documentation will fall under the the designation of CREST.
CREST, or COVID Response Educational Support Teacher, has been established to provide educational supports for students who are medically documented as having conditions requiring irregular attendance.
Although masks are not required, the school district encourages all students and staff to wear a mask when unable to socially distance effectively.
Reach Mike Christen at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeChristenCDH and on Instagram @michaelmarco. Please consider supporting his work and that of other Daily Herald journalists by subscribing to the publication.
This article originally appeared on The Daily Herald: Maury County Public Schools tackle new wave of infections